Oumayma B Tanfous’ warm, earthy images explore her connection with her hometown in Tunisia

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The Montreal-based photographer returned to Tunisia after a decade away: “I took a picture of two olive trees that were intertwined and I find it reminds me of my relationship to my country” 

Like many photographers who grew up during the age of Tumblr, Oumayma B Tanfous’ interest in portraiture was nurtured online. “I was around 13 to 14 years old and everyone had blogs,” says Tanfous, who spent her childhood in Tunisia before emigrating to Canada in the early 2000s, aged 10. “I started borrowing friends’ cameras and would photograph them in exchange… I find inspiration in people, how they move, their gestures, how they present themselves – I guess because that’s how I started.”

Despite this early instinct, Tanfous did not fully entertain having a photographic practice until she was in her twenties, following a stint in graphic design and later as a retoucher. Today, the 31-year-old’s client list includes brands such as Converse, Levi’s and Apple TV, and her editorial work has appeared in Vogue España, Dazed and M le Magazine du Monde. Her photographs are characterised by a warm, earthy glow; they are colourful, she says, “because that’s what I love – I dress in colours”.

Tanfous is now based in Montréal, following a recent spell in New York. “The pandemic was so chaotic in the US, it made sense to have a home base that felt safe and calm,” she says. But despite the tumultuous nature of her time in New York, it led her to examine her practice. “It didn’t shape my work, but being there during the pandemic, the presidential elections and Black Lives Matter brought a lot of reflection. It made me question the work I was doing and the people I was working with.”

© Oumayma B Tanfous.
© Oumayma B Tanfous.

Recently, Tanfous began working on a personal project about Tunisia. “It started very unconsciously, but I always had a profound need to create a project about it. When I go there all my senses are awakened. Even if I just photograph shadows or a tree, I find a lot of meaning,” she explains. The series, which leans into duality and reflects on absence and mourning, will eventually become her first book. “It’s on the relationship I have with my home country, how it was cut short, and trying to rebuild a bridge.” 

Tanfous was nominated for Ones to Watch by curator, art historian and content editor at The Eyes, Taous Dahmani. “Oumayma B Tanfous works with grace. She challenges what femininity might be in the Arab world at large and portrays intimacy like few other photographers do,” says Dahmani. “She is a very talented portraitist, mixing tenderness and sensitivity but also self-affirmation and empowerment.”

Tanfous had not returned to Tunisia for a decade, a distance that ultimately informed her current focus. “It’s a complicated process to go back… I always had a camera and felt the need to memorise everything I saw,” she says. Still in its early stages, the project’s working title is Intertwined, borrowed from a scene she found in Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia. “I took a picture of two olive trees that were intertwined and I find it reminds me of my relationship to my country.” 

Zoe Whitfield

Zoe Whitfield is a freelance writer based in London. Her work has appeared in British Vogue, i-D, AnOther, Dazed Digital, Wallpaper*, Interview, Vice, Garage, Huck and Refinery29.